Charlie Sheen isn’t funny

We’ve learned plenty about addiction from Charlie Sheen, on our narrated tour through winning-ville: Alcoholics Anonymous is a cult, social crack smoking is just plain fun and tiger blood can subdue most anything.

Except perhaps the demons of mental illness. Sheen, who now wants to take his rant on the road in his “My Violent Torpedo of Truth/Defeat is Not an Option” tour, doesn’t want to talk about that. He’d rather poke fun at the suggestion that bipolar disorder might help explain his rants, his anger, his grandiose notions. Maybe even his addictions.

“If I’m bipolar, aren’t there moments when a guy, like, crashes, like … ‘Waaa, It’s all my mom’s fault’,” he told a reporter who asked about it — dismissing the idea of a mental disorder as the whining of a weak-kneed loser.

Sheen’s stock in trade is making us laugh. And it’s easier to poke fun at a high-flying addict than at a man in the midst of a mental breakdown. Because for all our talk of addiction-as-disease, there’s an element of “They did it to themselves” that seems to give us license to laugh: He lit the crack pipe, he poured the drinks … now he’s yucking it up on TV. We’re partners in the hilarity.


But what if what really ails Charlie Sheen is something that rehab can’t scrub clean?


Michelle Abbey admits she laughed at Sheen like everyone else. Until it hit her: “That could be me, in a major manic episode.”

It’s not apparent, she said, “unless you’re one of those people.” Abbey is. A “dual diagnosis” patient, she has battled drug addiction and manic depression.

As a dancer with the American Ballet Theater, she began experiencing mood swings in her teens. “Screaming, yelling, very up and down … drinking, doing lots of drugs,” she said. “I didn’t know what was wrong with me.”

For 20 years, Abbey cycled between euphoria and depression. It wasn’t until she put a knife to her throat that her husband had her involuntarily committed to Glendale Adventist Medical Center, where she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

Four years later, the North Hollywood woman is sober and emotionally sound. She recognizes her drug abuse “as 20 years of self-medicating an illness I didn’t know a thing about.”

None of us can diagnose Sheen based on what we’ve seen on TV. Cocaine addiction and bipolar disorder have symptoms that mimic each other’s. And more than half of all drug addicts are believed to have complicating mental disorders.


In Hollywood, “it’s easier to say ‘I was smoking crack and hanging out with hookers’ than admitting ‘I’m deeply depressed or deeply in pain,’” said Abbey, who spent years working in the entertainment industry.

“People are quick to judge you when you’re manic depressive. I think Charlie Sheen, like a lot of us, doesn’t want to wear that label.”

Owning up to her diagnosis has sabotaged jobs and relationships, Abbey said. “There’s a very definite stigma.” It’s better to be a crack-head than a manic depressive.

And that’s not just the perception in Hollywood. Online blogs supporting people who are wrestling with bipolar disorder have been buzzing for weeks with anger and angst.


“People are laughing about what Sheen says instead of being sad or praying for him,” wrote a woman who calls herself marriedtoit. “My husband said today that ‘This is how people see the mentally ill.’ We are either jokes or are people to be put down. “

Janine, blogging on Living with Bipolar Disorder, put it even more bluntly: “Long ago they used to charge admission so people could see the ‘crazy’ people at Bedlam. It seems like we haven’t changed at all.... It’s one big “exploit-the-psychological-breakdown freak show.”


Kay Redfield Jamison understands why we are so quick to ascribe Sheen’s antics to drugs rather than to a brain disorder.


“People understand mental illness much better than they used to, but to most people the idea is still frightening,” she said. “Laughter is one way of making a very uncomfortable situation somewhat easier to manage.... The idea of mental illness carries huge discomfort, unless you have a personal connection.”

Which Jamison does. She is a professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and co-author of the standard medical text on bipolar disorder. But she is better known nationally for her memoir, “An Unquiet Mind,” which chronicles her struggle with manic depression.

Jamison had just been appointed assistant professor in the UCLA Department of Psychiatry when she was waylaid by manic depression and turned “ravingly psychotic,” she said. She writes about her difficulty acknowledging the disease. She was terrified and deeply embarrassed; she tried to hide from medical colleagues her rambling speech, inappropriate laughter, irrational irritability — the same sorts of symptoms we see now in Sheen.

It would be unethical, she told me this week, to offer a “diagnostic impression” of Sheen. “But I feel for him, whatever he has. He’s doing things in public that call for compassion.” Instead we’ve responded with “bear-baiting — like the ancient rituals of tormenting, then watching for the response.


“I get the sense people are just waiting for disaster, in a way. And then they’ll feel terrible when it happens.”

Bipolar disorder “is a very treatable disorder,” she said. “It’s hard for people to understand that when what they see in an extreme public setting is somebody just disintegrating.”

When I finished interviewing Jamison, I pulled “An Unquiet Mind” from my bookcase and found a passage that made me shudder:

“There is a thin line between what is considered zany and what is considered to be… ‘inappropriate,’” she wrote. “And only a sliverish gap exists between being thought intense, or a bit volatile, and being dismissively labeled ‘unstable.’”


I think Sheen’s crossed that line and dropped into that gap. And it’s time for us to stop laughing.